"Sweet Surprise" Corn Syrup Campaign Misses the Point | Civil Eats

“Sweet Surprise” Corn Syrup Campaign Misses the Point

Last year around this time, I was recovering from a 30-day diet that forced me to throw out my toothpaste and knocked seven pounds off my frame.  I spent that November living out a pledge to avoid corn products, in a stunt for a film I helped make, King Corn.

On my corn-free plan, the hardest things to avoid turned out to be corn sweeteners.  There were funny ones, like Sorbitol (a staple in my Crest, it turns out), but the big problem was that ubiquitous (and, I might add, delicious) goo, high-fructose corn syrup.  The stuff was in everything!  Spaghetti sauce and bread, Robitussen and fruit juice.  Out of the cupboard and into the trash it went.

Cut to this year, when rather than hunting for Karo-free pecan pie recipes or searching the supermarkets for pasture-fed turkey, I spent my Thanksgiving like many good Americans, eating whatever I wanted, and enjoying this friendly video message from the Corn Refiners Association:

Now, I must admit, it’s a real sign that high-fructose corn syrup is falling out of favor when some of its major manufacturers have to launch a $25-$30 million PR onslaught to salvage the product’s good name.  The stuff they make tastes great, and it’s already in just about everything we eat, whether we like it or not.

But the “Sweet Surprise” campaign sorely misses the point.  The Corn Refiners’ main claim seems to be that if something is safe in moderation, then go ahead––help yourself.  Haven’t we heard that before?

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Of course, I imagine high-fructose corn syrup is safe in moderation.  If I get up from my desk right now, shotgun a soda, and never drink another one, I don’t expect to keel over from corn poisoning.  But if I do what most Americans seem to be doing, and drink that one soda now, another in an hour, and another an hour after that, pretty soon those empty calories will add up.  Then I’ll have a problem on my hands… or around my middle’s more like it.

While the affable fellow in the Corn Refiners ad can’t get his words out, there is a clear answer to the question that’s harshing on his otherwise-great date: “What’s so bad about high-fructose corn syrup?”  As any nutritionist will tell you, if you flood your body with empty calories and don’t work them off, you’re bound to put on weight.  Put on too much weight, and you’re bound to see health consequences: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver problems.  High-fructose corn syrup is a mighty good way to pack in the empty calories, too: a twenty-ounce soda contains 250 of them, and hardly a lick of food value.

It’s old news that obesity is exploding: rates in this country have more than doubled since the 1970s. (Coincidentally, soft drink consumption has doubled since ‘71).  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three American kids born in the year 2000 is now on a path to develop Type II diabetes.  With half of all obesity-related medical costs being shouldered by publicly funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid, it seems that preventative medicine will be an important tool in fixing our health-care crisis.

What’s the number one cause of preventable death in America?  Tobacco.  Number two?  Obesity.  We figured out the tobacco part back in the ‘60s, got a lot of people to quit smoking, and saved a bundle of money and lives as a result.  But it’s worth remembering that King Tobacco put out some nice commercials in their day, too.  Their argument?  Everything’s fine in moderation.

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Curt Ellis grew up in Oregon and found his passion for food and agriculture at The Mountain School and Yale, then moved to Iowa to investigate the role of subsidized commodities in the American obesity epidemic. The film he co-created there, King Corn, produced with Ian Cheney and Aaron Woolf, received a national theatrical release and PBS broadcast, helped drive policy discussion around the Farm Bill, and earned a George Foster Peabody Award. Under a Food and Community Fellowship with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Ellis helped launch the mobile garden project Truck Farm and directed Big River, a sequel to King Corn, for Discovery's Planet Green. Ellis is a Draper Richards Kaplan Social Entrepreneur, a Claneil Foundation Emerging Leader and a recipient of the Heinz Award. He has appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC and NPR, is a frequent speaker on college campuses, and works as co-founder and Executive Director of the national service organization FoodCorps. Read more >

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  1. This is SO true! Despite all my convictions otherwise, and the great lengths I go to in order to avoid corn sweeteners, it still sneaks into my diet in unexpected and maddening places.
  2. Aryeh
    So you are saying that the empty calories from hfcs are more harmful than the empty calories from sugar? If the soda pop used sugar instead of hfcs would there be less obesity? If the problem is too much soft drinks, hfcs isn't the problem, the marketing and pricing of soft drinks to the near exclusion of drinking plain water is.
    Maybe you should look at the 'coincidental' again, and see if the move to large 2qt cheap and durable plastic bottles are more to blame for obesity than hfcs.
  3. Aryeh—

    You make a good point about sugar v. hfcs. But I think it is important to consider that those 2 liter soda bottles are so cheap because of hfcs...
  4. jonny
    I love chocolate. I love sweet stuff. But 10 years ago I found out my GI tract was not digesting fructose as well as it should due anti biotic induce colitis. (similar to lactose intolerance). Damn it was hard to find food that didn't have the stuff in it. Cereal, candy, baked goods, soft drinks, yogurt, ice cream. My diet need radical renovation to get away from the stuff, but I did it.

    While it probably is safe in moderation, it seems like the average American does not eat HFCS in moderation. That is the problem. Thanks for giving us the facts. It is still up to the individual to take responsibility for what to eat. We can't blame our diabetes on the big businesses.

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